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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Feb. 23, 2021.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Justin Trudeau is talking tougher about China. Joe Biden has stiffened the Prime Minister’s spine.

It is no secret that Mr. Trudeau has generally been tepid, even timid, in taking China to task, even after Beijing engaged in hostage diplomacy by imprisoning two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet ministers recently abstained on a Commons vote that declared China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority a genocide.

But on Wednesday, the Prime Minister described the charges against the two Michaels as “trumped up.” He more or less called the Chinese ambassador to Canada a liar for saying the detentions were unrelated to the extradition case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

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Then he talked about working with allies to not only get answers about human-rights abuses against Uyghurs but to “co-ordinate our actions and our consequences for a state that continues to be responsible for serious human-right violations.”

That kind of thing – talking about forming a common front of countries to impose “consequences” on China – well, it’s just the sort of thing that makes Beijing seethe. Or lash out. Mr. Trudeau had never been keen to risk it.

But one thing has changed, and it has changed Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Biden came into the White House promising to join with allies to confront China. Mr. Trudeau evidently thinks that’s for real.

If he’s right, that’s no small thing for the world. Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal government has in recent years felt it – and Canada – can’t take on the rising superpower in Beijing on its own. Other countries are wary, too. Former U.S. president Donald Trump’s beefs with China were bilateral, and he didn’t forge any alliances. But if Mr. Biden really is willing to lead, that could change the way U.S. allies deal with China. Allies such as Canada. Such as Mr. Trudeau.

Mr. Trudeau usually speaks of the imprisonment of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor as arbitrary detention, which isn’t quite as sharp and pithy. On Wednesday, he used the phrase “trumped up.” Consequences? That’s not the kind of threatening term he tends to use when speaking of China. With rare exceptions, he has been palpably cautious.

Until Mr. Biden came along.

As a candidate, Mr. Biden’s campaign platform spoke of working with allies to make China follow a set of global rules. But candidates promise a lot of things. Did he really mean it? Last week, in a virtual summit with Mr. Trudeau, he was pretty tough in his rhetoric about the two Michaels, promising to work with Canada for their release, and saying “human beings are not bartering chips.” Mr. Trudeau seems to think he means to back up his words.

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Of course, it’s possible that Mr. Trudeau’s newfound assertiveness is a tactical political shift in a likely election year. But he knows Canadian elections don’t usually turn on foreign policy, even when two citizens languish in Chinese jails. There were plenty of chances for Mr. Trudeau to adopt a tougher tone on China before the 2019 election, but he remained cautious.

Last year, when questions started to swirl over whether China had misled the world over the early cases of COVID-19, Mr. Trudeau initially steered clear. His team had two reasons: They had a more pressing crisis at home, and it wasn’t something Canada could handle on its own. Mr. Trudeau became a little more vocal as other countries piped up, but only a little.

Now there is a U.S. president promising to lead allies in dealing with China. And it is no coincidence that Mr. Trudeau is taking a different tone, talking about working with allies on joint consequences.

One can only imagine that the government of Australia – a country smaller than Canada which has been harangued and harassed by Beijing because it has had the temerity to criticize the rising superpower – is feeling relieved to hear a U.S. president talking about dealing with Beijing as a common front. But the trick, of course, will be to get other countries to get over their fears of Chinese retaliation, and agree to impose those consequences that Mr. Trudeau alluded to.

There is hope, though, that if Mr. Biden follows through on his promise to lead, his allies might find the courage to join. Mr. Trudeau seems to think that will happen, and already, he sounds a lot more daring.

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